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Trouble at the office: When to go to HR, and when not

I get a number of emails from people who have problems at work, go to HR and end up worse off than they were previously. Why is that? Shouldn't HR step in and fix problems?

Yes, and no. There are times you should absolutely ask and expect HR to help you out, but there are other times when going to HR may not be your best move. Here are some guidelines to help you decide:

When you must go to HR

  • If there is illegal conduct with respect to how you are being treated in the workplace.  If your manager is discriminating against you because of your race or national origin or some other protected area -- you should go to HR and file an official complaint. HR is legally bound to investigate the situation. If your complaint is found to be valid, they are required to act. If you do have such a complaint to make, don't do it casually. Write it up and send it in an email, copying your home email address, with the subject line "Formal Complaint of Sexual Harassment," (or whatever your complaint is).
  • If you want to take advantage of a government protection. For example, if you've just been diagnosed with cancer, you'll want protection from the Family Medical Leave Act, and you should go to HR to take care of the paperwork. If you have a disability and need accommodations, you need to formally request the accommodation from your Human Resources department. Your manager will be involved, but HR will know what to do and how to do it.
  • If you notice anything else illegal going on. Health and safety violations? Regulatory violations? HR isn't necessarily the right place to go, but they will know what you should do. They will also know how to document and get your complaint pushed to the top. Lots of companies have anonymous hotlines for things like this, but if your company doesn't, and you don't know who to speak to, come to HR.
  • You have a problem with or question about your company-provided health insurance. HR manages those plans. We have contacts and can sometimes fix things. Come, we'll help.

When you must not go to HR

  • You've done nothing to solve the problem yourself. HR is not like a playground teacher whose job it is to solve all problems and stop bullies from acting. If your coworker chomps on gum all day, driving you to distraction, don't come to HR until you've mentioned it to her.
  • When you're actually the problem. If your complaint is that your boss is mean -- before you show up in the HR department, ask yourself what the real problem is. It's not mean if your boss to tells you that you have to be on time to work in the morning, take only 30 minutes for lunch, and get your work done. Likewise, if you're upset that your coworker got the promotion and you didn't, yet she does twice the work you do, coming to us won't help your case.
  • When you haven't done your homework. You think your salary is too low? HR will hear you out, but you better have some pretty good evidence before you come in. For instance, is your official job description not reflective of what you actually do? Do you have information that shows that people in similar jobs make more money than you do? If the answer to both of these questions is no, we can't help.
  • You want other people to change. We all want other people to change, but if the problem isn't actually a legal one, you're going to have far better luck if you come to HR with the question of "what can I do differently" rather than "can you make Jane behave differently."

When going to HR depends on the company and the HR person.

  • When your complaint is not over something illegal and the perpetrator is high level. HR reports into the business, just the same way every other department does. That means, if your complaint is about a first level line manager, HR can probably step in, offer some coaching, and help fix the problem. If the problem person is a senior vice president? Well, HR can bring it up, but it's likely that the senior VP will be favored over you.
  • When you want guidance on your career. Some HR departments are awesome with employee development. We'll spend a great deal of time helping you map your career path and help you get developmental opportunities. Others? Not so much. This is totally dependent on your individual company.
  • When you want to talk about something "off the record." Some things cannot, legally, be off the record. If you come and say, "My boss is sexually harassing me," HR is required by law to act. That cannot be off the record. Other things are not so cut and dry. "My boss is becoming increasingly rude, and I'm concerned," can be an off the record discussion. Now, whether or not it remains one is dependent upon your HR department itself. HR isn't required to keep things confidential, like a lawyer or psychologist is. Legally, we don't have to keep our mouths shut, so ask before you talk. 
  • You want to talk about something that will affect the company. "I'm thinking of leaving, and I'd like to know about how to transfer my 401k." Pretty innocuous statement, just looking for general info, right? Well, if you're a key player, and we're in the beginning stages of a huge project, HR just may mention to your boss that you're thinking of leaving. HR's first obligation is to the company -- so think before you speak.
  • You're having personal problems. Again, sometimes HR can help, sometimes they cannot. Sometimes when we know about a problem, we can help you navigate, coach you and your boss, and get everyone through it successfully. On the other hand, we're not therapists. Many companies have employee assistance programs (EAPs) that can specifically help with things like this. Contacting them is confidential, so you're not in danger of being exposed. Start with the EAP.
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